How to Shop for a New TV


Photo Credit: ESPN

Size, budget and energy consumption are some of the things to consider before buying a new TV.

Jan. 27, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Shop the expanded menu of today’s video displays, and you might be choosing between flat, flatter and not so flat. You can get a TV that accesses the Internet, one that’s friendlier to the environment, and one that’s so thin it seems to float on the wall. You won’t want for options, but how do you choose?

Size should be a primary consideration. Where you’ll put the TV will determine how big you can go. You’ll want to go larger than you did with an old analog TV because the aspect ratio (the length of the width in relation to the height) of digital TVs has changed to a wider format. Today’s 42-inch plasma TV is actually shorter than a 42-inch tube TV, because TV screens are measured diagonally. If you’re used to watching a 36-inch direct-view TV, a 46-inch LCD or 50-inch plasma comes closer to the screen size you’re accustomed to viewing.

What to Spend?
If the price of upgrading to an HDTV has held you back, know that HDTVs are pretty affordable.

You’ll spend more to get the big-screen experience, but you won’t have to budget too much more. Some 32-inch plasma TVs can he had for about $650, and you’ll find other great values from brands that might be new to you, with many 40- to 58-inch models priced from around $1,000 to $4,000.

Overall, DLP TVs offer the best value today in HDTVs. Although they’re bulkier than LCD or plasma flat-panel TVs, DLPs measure as little as 10 inches deep. Some companies are also touting the 3D capability of DLP TVs, especially for video gamers. When you put on special glasses, even standard PC games appear in 3D.

DLP may have the cost advantage, but flat panels still rule today. So how do you choose between plasma and LCD, especially now that LCD TVs are as large as plasmas? “If you’re comfortable with the picture you got from a CRT TV, a plasma TV will make you happy, because the way it works is very similar visually to CRT,” says Bill Whalen, director of product development for Hitachi. And there are plenty of high-end models in plasma TVs, with enhanced black levels and other advanced features.

It’s extras like these that tend to jack up TV prices. More expensive TVs also tend to have better video processing, which is an important indicator of picture quality. Other premium options range from design and appearance to performance to energy efficiency to expanded accessibility. The latter—in the form of Internet access—is the latest advancement in HDTV, combining the immediacy and breadth of Internet content with the convenience of the TV.

Form and Efficiency
Now that TVs are thin and light enough to hang on a wall, many homeowners seek decor-level design. TV makers are responding with thinner bezels around the screen and, in some cases, color. In some of today’s super-thin models, the electronics—like TVs’ tuners —have been outsourced to external set-top boxes.

And don’t forget sound. Look for speaker options, and in some cases speakers that attach to flat panel displays and that mimic all five speakers of a surround-sound setup. 

Energy efficiency is being touted as well. On November 1, more stringent requirements go into effect for TVs bearing the Energy Star logo, which signifies that the set is about 30 percent more energy efficient than most other TVs available in the United States.

To that end, look for “home” viewing modes made available during the on-screen setup. Most TVs ship in vivid or “torch” mode to appear bright and colorful in retail stores, and many people never tone them down. Just taking a TV out of the vivid retail mode can save 20 percent or more in energy consumption.

There are automated modes, too, that dim or brighten an LCD’s backlight depending on dark or light scenes in a movie, for example. Ambient light sensors, available on many LCDs and plasmas, can dim the panel based on the light levels of a room, so the display is brighter during a bright day and darker at night. That saves plenty of juice.

Hot-looking sets from several big-name brands even feature LED (light-emitting diodes) for backlighting. More than a thousand LEDs not only provide more efficient light and tend to last longer, but some of them can also be turned off completely, giving parts of an LCD picture better blacks than ever. This is called “local dimming.” A big drawback with fluorescent-lit LCDs is that the backlights never turn off completely during viewing, so some light always leaks through in dark scenes. By shutting off regions of the screen at certain times, energy is saved, and the blacks are deeper and better. LED TVs are a win-win, until you get to the $3,000 to $4,000 price tags. But be patient: LED costs will come down in the next couple of years, and LED backlighting may become the norm.

Many TVs also have auto-off timers that will shut off the set after a warning if no channels have been changed or no commands have been made over a period of time. This can be a huge energy saver. There’s even a laser-lit TV coming from Mitsubishi that promises to use about half the amount of energy of LCDs.

Types of Displays
One of the first decisions you should make in buying a video display is what type you need, and we’re not talking about LCD, DLP, plasma, blah blah blah. That’s for later. First, you should decide whether you want a sexy flat-panel TV, a rear-projection set, a front projector, or a good-old direct-view TV (like a cathode ray tube, or CRT).

Flat-panel TVs include LCDs and plasma-based sets. These are just a few inches thick—or less—and can hang on your wall, though most people buy stands for them. (Remember that you have to run the power cords and connecting wires somewhere.) Flat panels are great for saving space, but they’ll cost you a little more. Sizes of LCDs range from small units to those that are 60 inches or larger, while plasmas vary from 40 to 70 inches, with a few 100-inch jumbos. LCDs have gotten a lot better, and 1080p resolution and a 120-Hz refresh rate helps them as well. Plasma still offers wider viewing angles, though it is more susceptible to glare. Don’t shop contrast levels, especially with LCDs. Some companies promote static contrast (a one-time measurement between the darkest and lightest levels), while others tout dynamic contrast (at different times). Contrast levels don’t mean much unless you’re sitting in a very dark room.

Rear-projection sets are no longer those bulky old CRTs but are newer and lighter “microdisplays” with screen sizes up to 70 inches. These come in DLP, LCD and LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) varieties, such as HD-ILA (direct image light amplifier). You’ll still need some floor space for those, and a few come with LED backlighting. These are some of the best bargains in HDTVs.

Front projectors are mainly for home theater use. They come in DLP, LCD, D-ILA, SXRD and even some big old CRT models. DLP dominates this category, with light and portable projectors available for $1,000 or less. Look for brightness in these, expressed in lumens, although even with the brightest ones, you should have a darkened room for optimal viewing. Many projectors can also be fitted with special anamorphic lenses that help create super-widescreen CinemaScope images. RGB connections are useful as well.

Projection Screens are needed with front projectors. It’s always best to have a professional match a screen to a projector. Many different sizes of screens and types of fabrics are available. Gray screens are often used with DLP projectors to enhance contrast. Some screens are motorized and can be hidden in soffits. Others have masking systems that black out parts of the unused screen, depending on the aspect ratio, or format used. Gain measures the amount of light a screen reflects.

Direct-view TVs are mainly CRTs.  You can get these in an HDTV at very reasonable prices. They’re just bulky. If you get a SDTV, this is probably the way to go.

Buying Tips

  • Determine budget and screen size first.
  • 720p is fine if you sit far back.
  • LCDs are getting better and better.
  • Look for energy-efficiency features.

Click here to view slideshow of 22 different TV models.

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